Saturday, July 30, 2011

Man and Woman

This interesting pair of words raises a few questions: Why does woman end with man? What does the wo mean? Does woman mean “man with a womb”?

In Old English (OE), man referred to both adult sexes and is of Germanic origin. Old Icelandic uses the word mathr in the same way, to refer to adults of both sexes, making konamathr (man) and kvennamathr (woman). In OE a female adult was wīfman (wife + man) and a male adult wǽpnedman (weaponed + man). Wife is OE meaning woman, origin unknown. “Weaponed-man” likely refers to a warrior and by extension adult males.

Following established rules for word changes, wifman morphed over the centuries to woman. The plural women was added later, likely to match the plural for man. Man itself was shortened from wǽpnedman by dropping the prefix, a common trend in most languages.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Strait and Narrow

In church this morning, before the service began, I was flipping randomly through my old King James and read Matthew 7:13-14 “…strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life…” The word strait caught my eye as I was familiar with the phrase “straight and narrow”, and I wondered if this was an old way of spelling straight or if the meaning was other than I had assumed.

This evening I opened one of my new books, POSH (see previous post), and found an entry on this very phrase. It turns out that strait is used in the narrow and constricted sense in this and two other verses in the New Testament. In all three cases the word describes a gate, not a pathway, so strait makes more sense than straight. There are, however, other verses which refer to “straight paths”: for example John the Baptist’s message “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” is recorded in Mathew 3:3 and in the other three gospels as well.

These two words – strait and narrow – were later used together (earliest recorded use 1834 “…strait and narrow path of duty”). The phrase quickly became straight and narrow (earliest recorded use 1842 “…straight and narrow way”).

It’s easy to see how this error occurred. First, the two words strait and narrow were associated with each other from the Matthew 7 verses, and were assumed to be describing the same thing – pathway. Then confusion with other verses describing straight paths led to the assumption that the word was straight. It makes sense too that the pathway to life would not only be narrow but also straight and direct – wandering neither to the right nor the left. A profound thought, but not what Matthew was saying in this particular verse.

The time – 8 years – between the first records of the two spellings of the phrase is amazingly short. Keep in mind that a word or phrase can be in use for decades before it is found in written form.

That the phrase strait and narrow (or straight and narrow) is so commonly known, although never appearing in the Bible, reminds me of two similar examples. Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” and Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine in the 1942 film Casablanca never uttered the complete phrase “Play it again, Sam”.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Three New Books

Three more books (among a few others) arrived in the mail yesterday from Hampstead House Books to add to my language library. HHB is a Canadian company "selling great books at great prices". They deal in publishers' overruns and I often make great finds in their catalogues -- sometimes it pays to have an unusual taste in books.

  • Canadian Thesaurus, Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010
  • POSH and other language myths, Michael Quinion, 2004
  • The Story of English  How the English Language Conquered the World, Philip Gooden, 2009.

POSH is a book for the layman, busting word and phrase origin myths. Sometimes these books just replace one myth with another, but Quinion is a researcher for OED (Oxford English Dictionary) so should be reliable.

The Story of English is a large size hardcover lavishly illustrated, again aimed at the layperson rather than the scholar. I look forward to delving into this one.

The Canadian Thesaurus should be a useful addition to my reference library. I often struggle to come up with a word that I know is there, but can't quite define let alone remember its name.

I've added these to my original book list post.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Etymology vs Entomology

Anatoly Liberman in his book Word Origins…and how we know them expressed surprise that his profession was frequently confused with entomology. He thought it must be a local quirk of the Midwestern mentality (he lived in Minnesota) until he discovered an article by a Professor of English at a Boston university. The professor related that a 1958 television lecture of his on “Folk Etymology” appeared on the printed program as “Folk Entomology”.

This mental switching of etymology to entomology is an illustration of the first definition of folk etymology (see previous post) where an unfamiliar word is converted to one with which we are more comfortable.

By the way, the root of entomology is Greek entomos referring to insects. The word means “cut in” and refers to the segmented bodies of some insects.

This inspired me to write the following poem, in the style of Ogden Nash.


            An Etymologist studies the meaning of words;
            An Entomologist studies ants and ladybirds;
            But something that's even more absurd’s…
            A Scatologist studies animal turds.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Etymology & Folk Etymology

Here are my definitions:
  • Etymology is the science of word origins.
  • Folk Etymology is the art of guessing word origins.

This is what Merriam-Webster Online has to say:

Definition of ETYMOLOGY

1 : the history of a linguistic form (as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another, by analyzing it into its component parts, by identifying its cognates in other languages, or by tracing it and its cognates to a common ancestral form in an ancestral language
2 : a branch of linguistics concerned with etymologies

Definition of FOLK ETYMOLOGY

1 : the transformation of words so as to give them an apparent relationship to other better-known or better-understood words (as in the change of Spanish cucaracha to English cockroach)

First Known Use of FOLK ETYMOLOGY

1882 [folk etymology was in practice for millennia before the word was coined]

My Canadian Oxford gives a 2nd definition: “a commonly held but false explanation of the origin of a word”. This is the meaning I’m using in this essay (I’ll write about the first meaning another time).

The Greek root of etymology means “true”. Etymologists attempt, as accurately as possible, to determine the true or actual source of a word. Folk Etymologists on the other hand can make up anything as long as it sounds plausible.

There must be something inherent in human genes to make us want to know the origins of things – words, phrases, objects… Or is it just me? No – I must have many fellow origin-seekers judging by the number of books written on the subject (I own 10 or 12 myself).

Most of early writing on word origins (and a significant amount of contemporary writing) was what would now be considered folk etymology. And much of it was wrong. For example Samuel Johnson’s first dictionary gave the origin of bonfire to be from the French for “good fire”; it actually comes from “bone fire”.

An etymologist knows you can’t determine the origin of a modern word just by looking at it. Here are some other examples of similar sounding (and similar meaning) words having completely different origins:

  • Pan (the cooking utensil): from Old English panne, possibly from Latin patina meaning “dish” [question for you etymologists – how do you know it’s not from Latin panis, making “bread pan” almost as redundant as “pizza pie”?]
  • Pantry: from Old French paneterie, ultimately from Latin panis therefore “a cupboard to store bread”. 
  • Minimum: from Latin minimus meaning “least”
  • Miniature: from Latin minium meaning “red lead” which was used to make (among other things) small illustrations in manuscripts called in Italian miniatura. By the time it reached English it had lost its original meaning of “red drawing” and become “small drawing” probably under the influence of minimum
  • Isle: comes from Old French ile
  • Island: from Old English igland, a compound of ig (island) + land. The spelling was modified to resemble Isle because of an assumed relationship. 
  • Man: from Old English mann, plural menn, of Germanic origin.
  • Human: from Middle English humaine from Old French from Latin humanus and ultimately from Latin homo (human being) 
This last pair I will expand on in a future post.

Word Origins…and how we know them, Anatoly Liberman, 2005.
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2001